Democrats Hope to Capitalize in Congress in 2006

Democrats hope the stars are aligned for a big victory in the 2006 mid-term elections, saying more than astrology is on their side — recent Capitol Hill scandals and wavering popularity of President Bush is helping to boost their chances for a congressional takeover.

"We're in a very strong position right now," said Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "We're poised to make gains."

Winning a majority of the House or Senate would be unlikely based on the current numbers, say most political observers. Still, Democrats are riding a growing wave of disenchantment with Republicans in Washington.

Nonpartisans say they also are seeing the donkey braying in the crystal ball.

"Right now, more than 10 months before the mid-term election, Democrats have a good chance of gaining seats in both houses of Congress," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Michael Barone, a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report and co-author of the Almanac of American Politics, told FOX News that Republicans are up against tough challenges in some battleground states.

"Republicans are facing political difficulties that are pretty severe in Ohio," thanks in part to statewide political scandals, Barone said. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, is being challenged by Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett, a Democrat who nearly beat Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt in a House special election last year in a heavily Republican Ohio district.

Schmidt's seat is considered vulnerable as are at least three other Ohio Republican House seats, according to election watchers.

Conservative Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has been cited as the most vulnerable senator in the country ahead of his November face-off against state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., a Democrat and political scion who is currently beating Santorum in recent statewide polls.

Three Republican House seats are also considered vulnerable in Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, the unfolding scandal surrounding indicted Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to federal fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion charges this week and is expected to expose his congressional connections in a deal with federal investigators, may lead to more GOP vulnerabilities.

One connection, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, was identified by court documents as having received expensive gifts and trips from the lobbyist in exchange for favorable legislation on the Hill. Ney has denied doing anything illegal or fraudulent.

Other GOP incumbents, including Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and embattled lawmaker and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, may also be affected, say observers.

In a year when more Republican than Democratic seats are vulnerable, where more Republicans are retiring and while Democrats are polling higher in generic public opinion polls, Republican scandals and low approval ratings for President Bush can only add to the negative factors hitting the GOP at once, say election watchers.

"The mood of the public and the errors of the administration really open up tremendous opportunities," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, adding that Democrats have been able to recruit high-profile and effective candidates for challenges in vulnerable districts.

But whether the demand for change is enough to produce a new majority in the House and Senate, most observers interviewed by — Republicans and Democrats alike — say they don't think so.

"I think structurally it's very hard because of reapportionment and the significantly lower number of competitive seats," Lake said. Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats in November to take over the House, but only about 30 or so seats are potentially in play out of the 435 seats available. Most seats are in districts made safe by redistricting or because they are in solid "red" or "blue" areas.

In the Senate, Democrats need a net gain of six seats to take the majority.

"An actual takeover in either house is very difficult," Sabato said, noting that the Abramoff scandal may increase the number of vulnerable seats in both parties. "It's possible, but it will take a Democratic wave, even a tsunami. Everything must come together for the Democrats to do this."

Terry Madonna, public affairs professor and director of the Keystone Poll at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, agrees that a change of the majority in Congress is unlikely, but the momentum going into the election year is definitely with the Democrats.

"It looks like Democrats are much more excited and optimistic about their chances, the Republicans less so," Madonna said, adding: "I don’t think we're looking at a big tidal wave right now."

Democrat Patrick Murphy, an Iraq veteran and former West Point instructor who is challenging Republican incumbent, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., said both local and national issues were playing in Democrats' favor this year. Saying that as a veteran he has "a special voice," Murphy is making the war in Iraq part of his campaign's focus by laying out an exit strategy for U.S troops in Iraq, including a timetable for withdrawal.

"I think the American people, in general, have been feeling for a while that something is wrong," he said. "After (Hurricane) Katrina, it was like the curtains were pulled back and the ineptitude of the administration was exposed."

But others note that not all Democrats agree on the issue of Iraq, particularly whether a timetable for withdrawal is wise, and the internal disagreement could take the issue right off the table despite polling that suggests it is important to voters.

"I think the Democrats have put themselves in a difficult position," Barone said, and noted that anti-war Democrats like party chairman Howard Dean don't have the full support of other Democrats on the issue.

"The Democrats have their own problems," Madonna said, pointing to ongoing rifts between the party's centrists and liberals — differences he said has kept them from signing onto to a common agenda, particularly on national security issues.

Nonetheless Republicans cannot take for granted the public's mood about the war, scandal and emerging controversies like the warrantless surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency, said John Gizzi, political editor of the conservative magazine Human Events.

"Democrats don't have new ideas, but they do have I.A.S — Iraq, Abramoff and surveillance," he said.

Democrats say they will focus on these issues, as part of a concerted campaign highlighting "the cost of corruption," Lake said, while offering a Democratic alternative for providing accountability and oversight in Washington.

"People definitely want a change, they want to make sure they are going to get real change," she said, adding that while Democrats do have a national strategy, individual candidates will also succeed with tailored plans for their districts.

"Democrats have unified in the need to ensure there is accountability" and will continue to hammer on "meat and potato" issues like health care, Singer said.

Even with that approach, Madonna said, all politics is still local.

"I don't think national issues will help all Democrats everywhere," he said. "It will all come down to the micro-politics of these districts."